Arab censors giving 'Passion' wide latitude

Arab governments across the Middle East are bending or breaking their own censorship rules for "The Passion of the Christ,'' the Mel Gibson film that sparked fears of anti-Semitism when it was released in the West.

In Egypt, where the film opened to large crowds Wednesday, "it's getting a very special treatment," said Mustafa Darwish, a film critic and former president of the Egypt Censorship Authority.

So far, the film has been released uncensored in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.

A longstanding ruling from Al Azhar University -- the ultimate spiritual authority for Muslims worldwide -- forbids the depiction of prophets in movies, and Muslims consider Jesus Christ a prophet. But authorities have made an exception for the controversial film depicting the final hours of Jesus' life. Only Kuwait has blocked its release, citing the ban on portraying prophets.

Gaber Asfour, secretary general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Culture, who gave his seal of approval to "The Passion," said the film's release is a sign of increasing artistic freedom in the country, which banned "Matrix Reloaded" and "Bruce Almighty" last year on religious grounds.

"You can say that we are regaining the spirit of enlightenment, which is essential to the cultural tradition of modern Egypt," Asfour said.

The laissez-faire attitude was clear at one Cairo movie theater, where an unusual disclaimer hung above the ticket window, proclaiming: "This movie reflects only the views of its creator."

However, Darwish and other observers say allegations raised by U.S. Jewish groups may have actually encouraged the film's welcome in the Arab world.

"They (the censorship authorities) think the film is anti-Semitic. That's why they are giving it such privilege," Darwish said.

Across the region, the film is packing movie theaters. Lebanese President Emile Lahoud has seen the movie, as has Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who called it "moving and historical.'' An aide to Arafat compared the pain Jesus endured to the suffering Israel has inflicted on Palestinians.

More than 142,000 people saw the movie during its first 11 days in Lebanon, shattering previous records set by "Titanic" and the James Bond movie "Die Another Day."

Lebanon is 30 percent Christian, which may help to explain the film's success there. But in predominantly Muslim Qatar, Syria and Jordan, the movie is also attracting unprecedented crowds. In Qatar, it is being shown on seven screens four times a day.

"We have broken all records," said Berthe Zeeni, marketing director for Prime Pictures, the film's Middle East distributor.

In Qatar, any movie showing a cross around an actor's neck was banned throughout the 1990s. So when the tiny Persian Gulf monarchy approved "The Passion," Mohsem al-Mokadem, the general manager of the Qatari Cinema Co., was shocked. "It is the first time that such a film has been released anywhere in the gulf," said al-Mokadem, who was a member of Qatar's censorship authority from 1980 to 1992.

Arab censors emphatically deny that they have treated "The Passion of the Christ'' differently than any other movie.

"We considered it as we would any film, from an artistic point of view," said a Ministry of Information spokesperson in the United Arab Emirates, where the film also opened Wednesday. "We did not look at it from a religious or political point of view."

In Israel, some ultra-Orthodox rabbis and several right-wing parties have called for the movie to be banned. And no Israeli distributor has yet sought permission to market the movie, according to the nation's Film Censorship Board.

Officials at Al Azhar acknowledged that they have long forbidden depictions of prophets -- or even the voices of prophets -- in movies, but they said they have no intention of opposing the decision of government censors to allow "The Passion" to be shown in its entirety.

"I encouraged the movie because it withholds from Jews their claims that they are innocent of the Christ's blood," said Mohiy el-Din Abdel Aleem, a professor of media and journalism at Al Azhar University, when asked why Al Azhar had not objected to the movie.

Sheikh Muhammad el-Rawy, a member of the Islamic Research Council, Al Azhar's highest authority responsible for reviewing books and movies, said it would have been inappropriate to interfere with a movie that concerns the Christian faith.

"We do not accept the screening of prophets, but we cannot confiscate others' beliefs," he said. "We didn't review this movie because it does not concern Muslims."

Habib Malik, a professor of history and cultural studies at the Lebanese American University in Beirut, said the allegations of anti-Semitism that have surrounded the film are undoubtedly part of the film's appeal in Lebanon.

"Word got around that this movie was upsetting a lot of people in the Jewish community in the West, and people here are predisposed to be anti- Israel, and anti-Jewish in general, and I think that's one of the reasons why people have flocked to see it," said Malik, who first watched the film with Mel Gibson and a select group of intellectuals and religious figures in Washington.

Malik said he hopes that even if people see the film for the wrong reasons, it may still have a positive influence by exposing Muslims to different religious viewpoints.

Moviegoers in Cairo left the film with widely differing views.

"This shows what happened, and how the Jews trapped Jesus and let the Romans crucify him. This is the truth," said Maher Nissim, a financial manager who viewed it on opening night at the Ramses Hilton theater.

Salwa el-Badrawi, a stooped elderly woman in an Islamic headscarf who attended a pre-release screening, said she hoped the movie would bring religions closer together rather than drive a wedge between them.

"It shows that there is tolerance and tenderness in all religions," she said. "The movie shows Jews who sympathized with the Christ, while we Muslims also had a Christian person who helped the prophet Mohammed," referring to Waraqah, his wife's Christian cousin, who helped Mohammed interpret his revelations.